Can you fire a political activist?
Can you fire a political activist? Does Duck Dynasty’s start have a religious discrimination complaint?
Can you fire a political activist? What if someone your company employs publicly speak out and winds up on the 6 o’clock news or the newspaper’s front page? Could it cost your company business?
Absolutely; many voice strong resentment toward organizations whose managers take the “wrong” stance volatile issues, occasionally leading to store or business boycotts. On a national level, Duck Dynasty reported a 28% drop in viewers and their lowest ratings in 13 months after Phil Robertson’s anti-gay remarks aired in a GQ magazine interview.
If your manager’s outspoken comments cost your company business, can you fire him before he costs you more business? If an employee becomes a media sensation over a highly highly-charged controversial issue and you terminate or suspend him, can he sue for a well-funded retirement or might a backlash swamp you worse than your manager’s comments?
Two recent cases, Minnesota Vikings’ Chris Kluwe and Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson reveal what could happen to an Anchorage company terminating or suspending a political activist.
Kluwe, a Vikings’ punter, became a media sensation by publicly protesting a proposed state constitution amendment that would define a marriage as “only a union of one man and one woman.” Many gave Kluwe partial credit for defeating the amendment.
Kluwe contends the Vikings replaced him because he supported same-sex marriage and told media outlet Deadpin.com he was an NFL player fired by two cowards and a bigot. Kluwe also accused Coach Priefer of asking him if he “had written any letters defending ‘the gays’ recently” and telling him he “would wind up burning in hell with the gays.”
Can Kluwe sue for wrongful termination? According to attorney Jeffrey O’Brien, “Although Kluwe has a difficult mountain to climb if he wants to prove he was fired for his outspoken political activism, Priefer was in direct supervisory role over Kluwe. If Priefer made inflammatory statements to Kluwe that created a hostile work environment, this could constitute illegal harassment.”
Priefer disputes Kluwe’s claims and the Vikings engaged former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Magnuson and former U.S. Department of Justice attorney Madel, to conduct an independent investigation of Kluwe’s allegations.
Further, while the Vikings state they let Kluwe go for football reasons, Kluwe’s attorney claims Kluwe protested Priefer’s alleged remarks shortly before the Vikings released him. If so, the Federal Civil Rights Act protects employees from retaliation for protesting discrimination and Kluwe may have a case due to another manager’s comments that appear to retaliate against Kluwe’s outspoken support of gay rights as sexual orientation is protected under Minnesota law.
In another well-publicized case involving voiced controversial beliefs, A&E Media “indefinitely” suspended Duck Dynasty Phil Robertson for insulting gay people and making insensitive racial statements. After a national backlash protesting that Robertson had simply publically expressed personal religious views, A&E reinstated him.
According to attorney turned HR consultant Rick Birdsall, Robertson may have “a religious discrimination claim because Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals due to their religious views” and “religion includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship to the conduct of the employer’s business.”
Although A&E might argue Robertson doesn’t have employee protections as a contractor, Birdsall notes Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against “any individual” and this may include contractors. Further, Robertson made his comments in the context of his role as a Duck Dynasty representative.
Meanwhile, political activist employees take a true risk, particularly when their views run counter to their employer’s beliefs or interests. While the doctrine of good faith and fair dealing protects employees against unfair termination including retaliation, employment at will allows employers to terminate employees for any or no reason.
Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or through www.workplacecoachblog.com